A groundbreaking graphic novel in the 1980s, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen remains today one of the most influential pieces of 20th century speculative fiction. A deconstruction of superhero comics and the geopolitics of the Cold War, Watchmen is a kind of adaptation holy grail. Its rich iconography and story of broken and twisted superheroes makes it a prime cinematic target, but the single adaptation to date is a mixed bag, at best; Zack Snyder’s 2009 film kinda-sorta works, but changes to the ending of the story are still being debated a decade later. Now Damon Lindelof is bringing Watchmen to television, only he is skipping over the actual graphic novel in favor of creating an expansion pack set in the world of today, thirty years after the events of the original story. The premiere episode of Lindelof’s adaptation, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”, which premiered this past Sunday on HBO, is immediately gripping, steeped in the lore of Watchmen, yet seeming wholly new. It’s also a complicated and twisted look at race in America.
The graphic novel is about the paranoia and mutually assured destruction of nuclear war, but we’re a generation removed from the Cold War. The themes are no less relevant, but we grow ever more remote from the urgency of the story. Lindelof and his crew, including producer and episode director Nicole Kassell, have instead focused their story, which is basically a sequel to the graphic novel, on race in America. It feels urgent and of now, and it broadens the lens of the graphic novel by introducing race into the story. But it’s a topsy-turvy view of America we see in the series. It is set in present day Tulsa, and this version of 2019 has electric cars but no cellphones, holographic televisions but apparently no internet. Though the thematic focus has shifted in the series, it does translate a key element of the graphic novel, which is “our world, but to the left”.
The racial politics are also at once familiar and strange. The episode opens in 1921, during the Tulsa race riot that resulted in one of the most affluent and influential black communities in America (dubbed “Black Wall Street”) being firebombed and as many as/at least three hundred black citizens dead. (The city of Tulsa recently began searching for long-rumored mass graves of the victims, and you can read more here, here, and here.) As his parents frantically try to get their son out of harm’s way, a young boy is thrust into a trunk with a note reading, “Watch over this boy”. Who is this boy? Is that a message any parent would shout to the heavens? Or is it a specific directive meant for a specific recipient? The whole scene plays like the destruction of Krypton, with desperate parents jettisoning their son into the unknown, hoping he will be spared.
Skip to the modern day, where the police wear masks and have secret identities, and detectives dress like costumed heroes. The characters from the graphic novel are being immortalized in a fancy television show, and Robert Redford is, apparently, president-for-life of America. Dr. Manhattan is still hanging out on Mars, Adrian Veidt is reportedly dead (but probably not), and there are intermittent, inter-dimensional squid showers. Do you need to know the graphic novel to follow the series? No. But you might want to hit up the Wiki and read about the squid, because this first episode makes it clear that the squid deception at the end of the novel still stands. The public seems to believe in inter-dimensional squid attacks, and Rorschach’s journal has turned into a right-wing conspiracy.
That right-wing conspiracy is at a tipping point as we witness a confrontation between a black police officer and a suspected white supremacist, identifiable by his Rorschach mask. The dynamic is intriguing, with a white man gripping his steering wheel as a black cop interrogates him, yet the confrontation still ends with the black man riddled with bullet holes and denigrated by a white supremacist. It’s a surprising dislocation that continues throughout the episode, which includes a race-reversed lynching. But none of it plays like cheap, tawdry theatrics, Watchmen’s race politics are at once shockingly unfamiliar and yet totally, depressingly familiar. This is still a world where the Tulsa race riot happened, it’s still a world where white people harbor resentment and hatred toward black people, it’s still a world with a fascistic police force (and apparently a full-blown authoritarian government).
Caught in the middle of this upside-down dynamic is Angela Abar (Regina King), a supposedly retired police officer who is still, in secret, a cop working under the name “Sister Night”. She has a cool as f-ck costume, a badass walk, and a take-no-prisoners attitude. She is presented as the heroine of the story, yet she also beats a suspect for information. He’s a white supremacist so who cares, but it’s part of that off-kilter dynamic throughout the episode. Are we supposed to root for the cops here? They seem pretty shady. Sister Night looks awesome and kicks ass, but the police force is INTENSE. We’re on deliberately unsteady ground, unsure of motives and tantalized by hidden forces at work.
One episode in and Watchmen is already a fascinating and disturbing look at race in America. Regina King is outstanding, and all the hook you need to give the show a chance. But stay for the warped, cracked-mirror view of America, and all the tantalizing possibilities for how the dynamics introduced in the first episode can play out over the season. It feels like Watchmen can go in a hundred different directions, all of them rife with possibility. This is a dark, uncertain world Lindelof has extrapolated from the graphic novel. I have no idea where it’s going, but I’m sure it will be a ride.